New study shows successful policies for reducing single-use plastic waste by holding producers responsible

Report offers Pennsylvania policies to promote waste reduction
For Immediate Release

[Philadelphia] -- The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center released a new report today highlighting the promising new policy trend known as producer responsibility, which works to keep product-makers--not individuals and taxpayers--responsible for the waste their products create. 

Breaking the Waste Cycle shows how this policy is gaining traction across the country and internationally by policy makers, and puts forth best-example case studies that Pennsylvania’s elected officials can implement.

“We have products pushed on us that we're supposed to use and throw away as quickly as possible, but there is no "away",” stated Stephanie Wein, Water & Conservation Advocate for the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. “We need a system that rewards companies for reducing waste and creating more reusable, repairable, and resilient products.”

“As consumers, we are often tasked with the mitigation of bad producer habits,” added State Representative Melissa Shusterman, who has introduced legislation aimed at increasing producer responsibility.  “When it comes to plastics, not only is this unfair, it is futile. While many individuals are adapting to more sustainable lifestyles, these efforts cannot overcome the sheer volume of non-recyclable, single-use plastics produced on a daily basis. Responsibility must start at the top, only then can our goals of reducing waste have a fighting chance.”

Nearly 100,000 tons of plastic -- enough to fill roughly 1.5 football stadiums -- are currently thrown away every day in the United States. This adds to a global plastic pollution crisis that’s plaguing our streets with litter, and our environment and waterways with plastic waste. 

"We've been misled for decades as industry pushed for non-recyclable plastics to be included in municipal recycling programs." said Alex Danovitch, Zero Waste Collaborator with Nothing Left to Waste. "Now is the time to create transparency and accountability by holding producers responsible for the packaging they dump in our communities and for brands to step up to be an authentic part of the solution."

"Local residents and our community members are frustrated and saddened by the tremendous amount of plastic waste that goes to landfills every day across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," stated Suzanne Watters, Co-Chair of Sustainable Sewickley, a southwestern Pennsylvania community group with over 2,000 members. "We need better solutions to this problem. We are hopeful that our state legislators will be as inspired as we are at the producer responsibility policies that have worked well in other states around the country and would like to see these policies enacted in Pennsylvania." 

The current “throw-away” economy contributes to many of the world’s most dire environmental problems. Extracting resources, producing goods, and transporting and disposing materials collectively produce 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 

At the same time, citizens are also exposed to pollutants from excessive manufacturing, and growing evidence of microplastics accumulating in our bodies. Meanwhile, millions of tons of plastic enter our rivers, streams and oceans every year, killing wildlife and spreading disease. Disposal costs fall on taxpayers or are shipped overseas, giving manufacturers no incentive to stop producing wasteful products.

“Breaking the Waste Cycle shows that producer responsibility works. Successful  programs already exist in many states that reduce waste from other hazardous, hard-to-dispose-of products like batteries, paint, mercury thermostats, carpet, pesticides, tires, and pharmaceuticals,” Wein said. “When it comes to the scourge of single-use plastics, the manufacturers of these items push their products onto unwitting consumers and leave them holding the bag, often literally a plastic bag. It's time for that to end.”

As several states and jurisdictions consider producer responsibility programs for packaging in the next year, the report provides examples of where programs have worked and offers policy recommendations for best practices.

  • In 2014, California passed its “Used Mattress Recovery and Recycling Act,” which diverts 47 million pounds of waste from the state’s landfills, 65% of which is recycled.

  • 10 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that make paint producers responsible for paint waste.   Under these programs, consumers pay a recycling fee when they buy new paint, which funds the nonprofit PaintCare program.  In the program’s first decade, PaintCare collected more than 38 million gallons of leftover paint from D.C. residents.

  • In 2020, the federal Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act was introduced in Congress. Among other things, the bill would make producers responsible for the full end-of-life costs of some types of packaging and single-use products, place the financial burden of waste management and the cleanup of plastic pollution on the companies that manufacture and sell those products, and establish a national-level bottle bill.

“There is a future in which companies prioritize waste reduction, and consumers are empowered to make zero waste choices,” Wein noted. “But to get there, we need producer responsibility.”

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The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is a statewide non-profit environmental group dedicated to protecting our water, air and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. To learn more about this or other priorities for the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, visit our website at www.PennEnvironmentcenter.org.